WASHINGTON – Environmentalists say the public has been cut out of the licensing renewal process for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, as a result of a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission rule.
The change in procedure, being applied by the NRC for the first time in the Calvert Cliffs case, has effectively left the renewal application without any official opposition.
It has also left the plant’s owner, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., ahead of schedule in what was expected to be a multiyear process to relicense Calvert Cliffs.
“There was only one intervening group – they were dismissed,” said Chuck Rayburn, a BG&E spokesman. “There are no hearings scheduled, so extra time will not be required.”
But the intervening group he referred to has not given up the fight.
The National Whistleblower Center has gone to court for the right to be heard on the Calvert Cliffs case. It says it was not allowed enough time under the new rule to independently study the relicensing application for possible problems before it was turned away by the NRC.
An attorney for the whistleblowers group said it fears that the Calvert Cliffs case could set a precedent for other relicensing applications if left unchallenged.
“This case is a gigantic case for nuclear safety,” said Stephen Kohn, the attorney for the National Whistleblower Center.
Calvert Cliffs is a two-reactor power plant in Lusby, about 45 miles southeast of Washington, that is currently licensed to operate until 2015. BG&E applied for a 20- year renewal of the plant’s operating license in April.
Under old relicensing procedures, nuclear power plants were required to undergo inspections for reactor component aging.
But under a new rule that the NRC developed in the mid-1990s, there is no physical inspection of the plant. Nuclear power plants are only required to show that they have an effective maintenance program.
Without that inspection, environmentalists say, the burden of finding any problems with the plant has fallen to them. They say that is too big a job to do in the time the NRC has allotted for objections.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the short timeline discouraged his group from trying to petition the Calvert Cliffs renewal.
He said the Union of Concerned Scientists met with the National Whistleblowers Center last summer and decided that only one of them would try to meet the NRC deadline in the case.
The whistleblowers petitioned to intervene, which would have let the group independently study the power plant and represent the public in the renewal process. But the center failed to meet a September deadline for more information and it was dismissed by the NRC.
Lochbaum said he was not surprised that the whistleblowers center was not able to comply.
“The utility company had many years to develop their plan and the public only had 30 days to respond,” he said.
But BG&E’s Rayburn said the environmental groups were included in the development of the new relicensing rule and cannot complain about it now.
“Perhaps for the first time they are finding themselves on the short side of the argument,” he said. “To some extent, that’s sour grapes. … If they can’t attack the content they attack the process.”
An NRC spokesman declined comment on the matter.
Calvert Cliffs is not the first nuclear plant in the country to seek a license extension. In 1990, the Yankee Atomic Electric power plant in Rowe, Mass., applied for a license extension under the old rule.
But tests conducted to determine the strength of the reactor walls indicated deterioration of the metal walls. Instead of a license renewal, the Rowe plant earned an early retirement and shut down in 1992.
Calvert Cliffs has had a varied safety record over the past 20 years. While tt was on the NRC’s watch list — nuclear plants that are closely monitored for safety violations — for four years in the early 1980s, it has remained off the list since.
BG&E decided to apply for a renewal 15 years before the expiration of its current license to allow for appeals and litigation, since its application is the first under the new rule.
The whistleblowers still hope to participate in the Calvert Cliffs renewal process. The group filed its latest legal appeal in early January in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
“If we win, we go back to day one of the licensing process,” Kohn said.
If they fail, he said, “I believe it will be impossible for any group to intervene anywhere, ever.”